Saturday 9 July 2016

Five Centuries of Utopia

We all like to believe in a perfect world, a Utopia where there is no dispute, no violence, no prejudice.

The idea of a Utopia has been espoused by many people through the centuries and one thing they have in common is that they are not achievable, but that shouldn’t stop us believing in one. Most religions have a Utopian world as an afterlife, while philosophers have spent centuries trying to come up with an earthly one.

Many people think that the word Utopia comes to us from Ancient Greece. In a way it does because it probably comes from the Greek for “no place”. But the word wasn’t used to describe a perfect society until the publication 500 years ago this month of the work called “Utopia” by Sir Thomas More.

Many lgbt philosophers and writers have contributed to Utopian literature throughout the succeeding five centuries and I’d like to feature three of them today.

The first Utopian novel following More’s 1516 original was “New Atlantis” by Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Being a great polymath Sir Francis helped to found the basic principles of modern scientific investigation. As with More’s “Utopia”, Bacon’s “New Atlantis” owes much to philosophy more than it does to fiction but they can be seen as both. Unfortunately, Bacon died before completing his work which would have concluded with stories of Utopian law and politics. The fact that he chose to write the first part about science and discovery shows his personal preference for the subjects, despite holding the highest legal office in England, that of Lord High Chancellor.

The Utopian science and research establishment Bacon created in “New Atlantis” was highly influential in real life. At the time the work was published in 1626 shortly after Bacon’s death there was a mood among the English scientific community, backed by King JamesI himself, that a special society should be formed to promote the new scientific methods that were being introduced. In 1660 the Royal Society was formed for this purpose and it is still going strong to this day.

“New Atlantis” also influenced a much more famous work in which a scientific community appears, “Gulliver’s Travels”, though Jonathan Swift wrote this Odyssey of a Nottinghamshire traveller as a parody of Bacon’s work.

After several other Utopian novels another by an lgbt writer was published in 1872. By this time the massive changes caused by global discovery followed by the Industrial Revolution led to many writers turning their pens to satire like Jonathan Swift. The 1872 novel “Erewhon” by Samuel Butler (1835-1902) is one such satirical novel which bases as much of his Utopian nation in a world that feels far removed from the fantastical worlds of Gulliver.

The main concern in Samuel Butler’s time was the publication of the theory of evolution. Combined with the Victorian obsession of judging a potential criminal by his or her physical characteristics Butler turned his nation of Erewhon into one where criminal actions are seen as a disease and possession of a disease is seen as a criminal act.

Perhaps the most contemporary slant in “Erewhon” was the section called “The Book of the Machine”. In the Utopian world of Erewhon machines were banned and consigned to museums. Butler was highlighting the growing dependency humanity had on machines, much less than it does today, and took it to its opposite extreme. Many Victorians saw the growth of industrialisation as a bad influence. After all, industrialisation led to mass migration of people into towns and cities and gave the country levels of poverty that it never had before. Slums, workhouses and mass unemployment didn’t exist before the Industrial Revolution and some Victorians wanted a return to the pastoral past.

Last, and certainly not least, we arrive at a modern vision of Utopia where gender and sexuality is the main focus.

Lesbian feminist and academic Joanna Russ (1937-2011), again, used satire to create her Utopian world of Whileway in her novel “The Female Man”, published in 1975. The novel is very much of its time. The feminist movement was at its height and Joanna Russ wrote extensively on feminist issues. She also developed a genre of feminist science fiction which has become an important part of the modern genre. Science fiction was dominated by male writers and male issues, and Joanna Russ’s “The Female Man” became the leading novel of female and feminist science fiction writing.

Joanna, unlike Butler, deliberately chose fantasy worlds and parallel universes instead of remote fictional islands to highlight the science fiction element.  Her Utopian world of Whileway was just one of the four she created in her novel. In Whileway all men were absent, having died out in a gender-specific plague. In a world without men the surviving women developed a means of reproduction in which two ova from different women are merged genetically. Without man as partners the women of Whileway form same-sex relationships and families.

As a contrast to this world Joanna Russ also created a world where men and women were in conflict and boys are surgically changed to look like woman for the sexual satisfaction of the men.

Joanna’s two other worlds in “The Female Man” are her contemporary world of the 1970s and a parallel world where the Great Depression of the 1930s never ended.

One woman from each of these four worlds meet and discuss the startling differences is their experiences and discover for themselves what femininity means to them. Through this they re-evaluate their own lives.

Through the pens of these three lgbt writers Utopian worlds were created which were shaped by their own lives and the world in which they lived. Sir Francis Bacon’s “New Atlantis” was a mirror to emerging scientific techniques and research, Butler’s “Erewhon” was a response to the theory of evolution and the growth of industrialisation, and Joanna Russ’s “The Female Man” was an exploration of gender in a world of sexual protest and freedom.

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